Argentine Actor Leonardo Sbaraglia on His “Slightly Disturbed” Character in HBO’s ‘El Hipnotizador’

The name Leonardo Sbaraglia may not be immediately recognizable to your average American moviegoer, but you’ve probably still seen him around. Like, for example, if you caught Damián Szifron’s Oscar-nominated Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales), or maybe you saw him acting alongside Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver in 2012’s Red Lights. Or maybe you’re just a fan of Argentine and Spanish cinema and recognize him as one of the most versatile and prolific actors of his generation.

Indeed, the Buenos Aires-born thespian has appeared in over three dozen feature films since his career kicked off in the mid-80s, not to mention close to twenty television series. Starting off as a teen acting phenomenon, Sbaraglia quickly caught the attention of international-calibre directors like Marcelo Piñeyro who brought him into the big leagues of global cinema with features like Plata Quemada, Tango Feroz: la leyenda de Tanguito, and Caballos Salvajes. From there Sbaraglia’s career took him to Spain where he won a Goya Award for Best New Actor for his role in Juan Carlos Fresnadillos’ 2001 Intacto, only to pick up another nomination six years later for his supporting performance in Salvador.

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After working with HBO Latin America on the second incarnation of their critically lauded series Epitafios back in 2009, Sbaraglia once again disrupted the world of Spanish-language premium television with his starring role in last year’s El Hipnotizador, also produced for HBO. Based on a graphic novel of the same name, El Hipnotizador transports us to slightly off-skew vision of the past, where the border between science and magic is still undefined. Sbaraglia plays a mysterious hypnotist named Arenas, who arrives to a fantastical South American city where Spanish and Portuguese are used interchangeably.

Once there, the insomniac Arenas sets about using his skills to better the lives of the city’s residents while attempting to escape a haunting specter from his past. Situated in a dense period atmosphere reminiscent of the 1940s, El Hipnotizador is firmly rooted in the narratives of classic detective fiction, harking back as far as the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Yet there is something unmistakably modern about El Hiptonizador, and the series may actually be telling us more about our own time than meets the eye.

As El Hipnotizador makes its way to U.S. audiences via HBO and HBO GO, we took the chance to chat with Sbaraglia about getting into character, the impossibility of knowing the past, and some positive developments for Argentine TV. Check it out and catch the first two episodes of El Hipnotizador on HBO.

On Generous Insomniacs and Decoding His Character

At first it was very difficult to understand how to go about expressing this character, decoding him. I think the character that we’re shown at the beginning is very much like a detective, because there is a principal plot in which Arenas is trying to investigate: investigate his own identity, his own history, his own mystery. And in addition to that personal investigation he also discovers himself through others, as if the other were a reflection, or a key to discovering his own identity. Over several episodes, Arenas comes in contact with the problems and mysteries of other people and its through them that he finds what’s missing in himself — in his own world — and that’s very interesting.

On the other hand he is an insomniac, a character who can’t sleep, who can help others find rest, but can’t help himself. And that same characteristic causes him to have a slightly disturbed personality, a short fuse, but at the same time he is deeply generous and has an tremendous ability to sense the problems of other people.

On Creating His Own Monsters

I had the chance to interview a hypnotist several times. He taught me some tricks, we played around a little with hypnosis and he explained how it works. There’s a lot of neurolinguistics in the language of hypnosis. In that sense I did have to do some research and then let my imagination create its own monsters, its own character. In that sense Arenas is based on many aspects of reality, real individuals, but there’s also an element of fantasy and I had to let him grown through my own imagination.

On Revealing the Present Through the Past

I think that being able to go back to the past, even though El Hipnotizador is a story that has many elements of fantasy, there are many aspects of it that are rooted in reality. Despite the fact that the past we see is a fiction, it could be possible. No one knows what the past was truly like. No one has a time machine to go back and see it first-hand.

In addition, the city we see in El Hipnotizador is almost under siege. It’s as if all of the people in this world were somewhat hypnotized, or under a spell. It’s a city that’s almost repressed, watched over, and in a way Arenas arrives to see how he can liberate this world. It’s something that I think is interesting to think about with respect to our own moment. There’s sort of a saturation of technology, it’s a little like Orwell’s 1984, and I think El Hipnotizador deals with these themes. I think whenever we talk about the past we’re also talking about the present. It’s a way to speak about the present through metaphors. I think as a society we always find the spaces where we can reveal ourself.

On Hypnosis and Argentina’s Love of Psychology

Everyone who’s seen the series so far in Argentina has been very enthusiastic, and they’ve been particularly struck by the quality of the production. Plus, in Argentina psychology is a very important part of the society, and hypnosis is very closely related to psychology. In fact, Freud himself started out doing hypnotism with his patients, and like psychology it’s a tool that gives people the freedom to speak, to think out loud. The ability to share out thoughts out loud is a huge step toward achieving a better understanding of ourselves. And in Argentina this is all very present.

On Diversifying Argentine Television

I think in television in Argentina has grown immensely over the last few years, and we are making more and more high quality series. It’s very difficult to compete with series like El Hipnotizador because the television market in Argentina is much more local. The great thing about this type of show is that there you can assure more quality in the script, the production, the post-production. But I think that we do have some very exceptional series coming out of Argentina, like last year’s El Clan which was a great series shot with excellent actors, and a very good director. So they’re always trying to make a quality product, but with such a local market and low budgets it’s hard to pull off.

On the other hand over the last few years the government has incentivized television production and given many subsidies for cultural production, which has created more diversity on the screen. We’ve seen content coming out of other provinces, the industry has been decentralized a little bit, and this has allowed us to see subjects that are more difficult to deal with on network television.